Notes by Nectar

Your destiny lies in your own hands

Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2015

The Literature Festival is definitely my favourite event in the Dubai calendar and I look forward to it every year like most women look forward to the Harrods sale. I became a ‘friend’ of the Festival last year and decided it was worth doing again: you get use of the outdoor lounge, complimentary tea and coffee, reserved first and second row seating at all events and early discounted booking on all Festival events. I bought my tickets in January and once again, couldn’t wait for March! I’d booked four sessions on the Friday (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Markus Zusak, David Nicholls and Jung Chang).

On Thursday night I sorted out my books – I had three books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Americanah, Half of a Yellow Sun, That Thing Around Your Neck), The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Us and The Understudy by David Nicholls, and Wild Swans by Jung Chang. I took them all with me on Friday so I could get my copies signed!

My first thought when I got to the Festival this year was that it was packed. Much more crowded than the year before. I got in the queue to see Chimamanda. Her session was from 11.30 to 12.30 – and she spoke to a room of 500 people bursting at the seams. I had a front row seat, but a little to the side, and I recorded the session on my phone but the quality wasn’t great so when I find a YouTube video of it, I’ll post it here. After listening to her talk, I feel like rereading everything she’s ever written.

After the session, I got into a seriously long queue for her to sign my books. I had a dilemma at that point. The Markus Zusak session was starting at 1pm and it was already 12.45 and I was nowhere near the front of the line to meet Chimamanda. I ended up skipping the session with Markus Zusak and waited in line. An hour later, I finally got to meet her and she signed my books. I told her I’d grown up in Nigeria. ‘Really?? Where?’ she asked. ‘In Lagos,’ I replied. ‘Wow! What school did you go to?’ ‘The American School.’ We chatted for a few minutes and then our time was up. (At 2pm, Chimamanda stopped signing books – not because the queue had come to an end, but because she had another meeting and they needed the space she was at for another author whose session was ending.)

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By this time it was 1.40pm so I got into the queue to meet Markus Zusak. As his session hadn’t finished yet, there was no queue and I was third in line. The woman at the front of the queue looked at me and smiled. I smiled back. ‘Amreeta?’ she asked. ‘Er… yes?’ I had no idea who this person was. And then she introduced herself – she was someone I’d been to school with. In Lagos. At the American School. Which I’d just been talking about with Chimamanda. Is there such a thing as coincidence? I hadn’t seen her since I was 11 – we’re Facebook friends but hadn’t really kept in touch, and when I moved to Dubai we spoke on the phone a couple of times but never got round to meeting. I wouldn’t have recognised her at all. We chatted until Markus Zusak showed up – he signed my copy of The Book Thief and I went to meet my friends for lunch.

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We thought we’d go to Jamie’s Italian (where we ended up last year) only to find that it had closed down. Most of the waterfront area seemed to be under construction so we ended up eating at Choix at the Intercontinental. I would not go back there again. The service was terrible, the portions were tiny and they didn’t serve any alcohol. The three of us ended up ordering the risotto – and when it came, the portion was so small you could eat the whole thing in four bites. After ‘lunch’, we decided to go to Vista, the bar, for a drink – as our next session wasn’t until 4.30pm. We got a table outside and ordered some Pinot Grigio. The waiter poured us a taster but it wasn’t chilled so we sent it back. The next bottle he brought still wasn’t cold (I’m pretty sure it was the same bottle) but by this point I’d given up on every restaurant/cafe at the hotel. We drank our wine and then went to the David Nicholls session.

I’d seen him in 2012, the first time I’d gone to the Festival – and he was just as funny. I didn’t record the session but now I wish I had. I did meet him afterwards and signed my two books for me.

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The last session I went to on the Friday was with Jung Chang. I’d read Wild Swans when I was 20 and still had my copy from back then. I’d started reading Mao: The Unknown Story when it was first published but I really had no idea what was going on and I gave up about 40 pages in. This session was about Chang’s latest book Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. I hadn’t read the book but it sounds like a period in Chinese history that is so fascinating – I’ve added the book to my list. I also managed to record the session and met Jung Chang afterwards – she signed my old tattered copy of Wild Swans.

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When I was younger I used to write my name in all my books – but these days I’d rather the authors did it themselves šŸ˜‰

It was a fantastic day out – and I’m already looking forward to next year!

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20 books in 2013

For the last 2 years I’ve aimed to read 20 books a year. I almost made it in 2011 (I got to 19). I thought that once I moved to Dubai I’d have more time to read but in 2012 I read only 11.5 books (that’s not even one a month – pathetic).

This year, however, I’m pleased to say I’m well ahead of target – I’ve finished 13 books this year, six of those in June!

Fall Giants

I started Fall of Giants by Ken Follett late last year and finished it in January. I’ve been recommending it to anyone who wants book recommendations (along with Pillars of the Earth and its sequel World Without End). This summer I’m going to read Winter of the World (once I finish my current book).

Brande

I then read Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer. I read this many years ago, but thought it was time to re-read it. I’ve decided this will be the first book I read every year (so from now on I don’t think I’ll include it in my ’20 books a year’ goal).

Tan Twan Eng

I wanted to read The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng before going to the Emirates Literature Festival. He has become one of my favourite writers and I’m waiting for his next book! It was fantastic to meet him and I got him to sign my copy of the book along with The Gift of Rain.

Understudy

My cousin in London lent me her copy of The Understudy by David Nicholls while I was there earlier this year. I laughed out loud a lot – and a good laugh was just what I needed at that time.

Circus

In March/April, I read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I enjoyed reading it at the time but when I look back at it a couple of months later, I don’t really remember much about it. Yes, the circus comes to town, it pops out of nowhere, people never age, there’s a weird challenge between magicians…

Monk

The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma was next. I’d heard about this book over the last few years and finally decided to read it. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed. I thought the message Sharma was trying to convey was great, but I felt it could have been presented in a different manner. As a writer (almost) I struggle with dialogue. The thought of writing an entire book based on a conversation between two people over one night would fill me with dread. I’m glad I read it, but it was a little disappointing.

Wonderland

I got several books for my birthday. One of them was Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I started reading it, thinking it was set in the 2000s (if not later) and was surprised to find that it was originally published in 1985. The ideas in this man’s head astonish me. It’s a sci-fi mystery – with two stories being told at the same time in alternating chapters: a data processor recruited by a mad scientist who lives in a cave. The scientist and his granddaughter ask the man to help them avoid the end of the world. The other story is about a man arriving in a quiet village surrounded entirely by walls and fields where unicorns graze. This man is forced to leave his shadow outside the village walls where it will surely die on its own. Bizarre stuff but I loved reading it. I’m still not sure I get how the two stories are linked but I keep thinking about it.

And then came June. I’ve read a lot this month, partly because I’ve spent most of my weekends (and some weekdays!) by the pool with a book.

Gatsby

I was in two minds about seeing The Great Gatsby and knew I’d want to read it before I saw it. Can you imagine I’d never read it? After reading it I decided that I wouldn’t see the movie – some people have raved about it, some have said it has absolutely nothing to do with the book. Maybe I’ll watch it one day. ‘Gatsby’ fever has even hit my piano teacher – I’m learning ‘Young and Beautiful’ by Lana del Rey in my piano lessons!

Monkey Business

Another book I got for my birthday was Monkey Business by John Rolfe and Peter Troob. It’s not something I would have chosen to read but I think this friend wanted to introduce me to the world of finance (and then borrow the book!). I gave it a shot and was pleasantly surprised. I read the book in 5 days – I didn’t want to put it down. It did make me wonder why anyone would want to work in banking. I laughed out loud in parts. My favourite paragraph was this:

As the crowd continued to pour a river of liquor down its collective throat, the dance floor began to fill up. The spectacle that ensued was solid evidence that if there’s one thing that money can’t buy, it’s rhythm. When it comes to pure foolishness, a room full of drunk investment bankers prancing around a dance floor pushes the limits of the imagination. To this day I pray that it’s a sign the civilized world will never be forced to witness.

Hilarious!

Gone Girl

I did a short creative writing course in June, and in the first session the woman conducting the course said she had finished reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and couldn’t put it down. I’d bought it when I was in London in February and started reading it that weekend. She was right – it was a gripping story. Basically, a man’s wife goes missing on their 5th anniversary, there are signs of a struggle at their home, all the evidence points to him, but is he really a killer? I won’t ruin it for readers who haven’t read it, but I thought the end was a little disappointing but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

I read the next two books in the space of 3 days.

Headhunters

Headhunters by Jo Nesbo was an easy read. It’s about a man who’s Norway’s most successful headhunter but also an accomplished art thief. He’s introduced to a potential client who claims to own one of the most sought-after paintings in modern art history and he plans to steal it. I couldn’t put this down – I read it in 2 days. It’s very different from the Harry Hole series (The Snowman, The Leopard) but just as thrilling.

Dinner

I read The Dinner by Herman Koch in one afternoon by the pool. Two couples meet for dinner at a trendy Amsterdam restaurant to talk about their children. Each couple has a 15-year-old son – the two boys are united by a horrific act which was captured on camera, posted on YouTube, and has launched a police investigation. What starts out as a civilised evening soon disintegrates as each couple shows how far they’re willing to go to protect their children.

Hosseini

Two nights ago I finished reading And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. I bought it in Kinokuniya a few weeks ago (with two other books – I really should not be allowed in there!). It begins in a small village in Afghanistan in the early 1950s. Abdullah and his sister Pari are children from their father’s first marriage and they have a very close bond. One day their father takes them to Kabul – they have no idea that their lives will be torn apart, never to be the same. The novel takes the readers through generations and continents – Kabul, Paris, San Francisco, the Greek island of Tinos – up to the present day. Family bonds, sacrifices, choices – it’s all here. It’s a great read, but I didn’t think it was as good as A Thousand Splendid Suns.

So, that’s where I am! I’ve just started reading Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. I’m slowly working my way through my unread books…

I’m sure the website goodreads.com isn’t new to most of you – I’ve been using it for a few years. I recently downloaded their Android app though – and it’s fantastic. It has a barcode scanner so you can just scan the barcode of the book you’re reading (or want to read) and it brings up the details of the book. No more searching for authors/titles/editions!

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A day at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

I enjoyed the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature so much last year I decided I was definitely going to go again this year, especially when I found out Tan Twan Eng was going to be coming to Dubai. He has become one of my favourite authors – I read The Gift of Rain in 2007 and was so disappointed when I found out it was the only thing he’d written. His second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, was published in 2012 and I managed to read it just before the Literature Festival.

I booked my tickets in January and waited. I booked tickets for five different events taking place on the Friday. It meant I would be there from 10am to 7.30pm but I didn’t care. I had originally booked tickets for four sessions but when I realised I had a gap between 12.30pm and 5pm I decided to book something for the afternoon too.

The first session was at 10am and it was called ‘Intoxicating Prose from East & West’. The author panel consisted of Tan Twan Eng (The Gift of Rain, The Garden of Evening Mists), Jeet Thayil (Narcopolis) and Sjon (The Blue Fox). The moderator was Rosie Goldsmith. The first two rows were reserved for ‘Festival Friends’ (I think I might become one) and so I found a seat in the third row with a pretty good view of Tan.

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And a minute later, he moved. As he didn’t have his own mic, he had to sit next to the moderator in order to share hers.

Tan Twan Eng is a Malaysian writer – but Japan and Japanese culture feature heavily in both his novels. Rosie asked him whether he’d been to Japan – he hasn’t. He said he became interested in Japan when he was 16 years old. He was being bullied at school and was looking for a martial art to help him defend himself. He eventually chose Aikido because it doesn’t use any kicking movements (he said he was too fat to kick). For the next 12 years he became obsessed with Japanese culture as understanding it is necessary to progress in Aikido. When asked whether English is his first language he said it must be because he writes in English and dreams in English. He was a lawyer before he became a writer, and he studied in the UK. He also speaks Malay, Cantonese, a bit of Mandarin, and some Afrikaans (enough to know when he’s being sworn at). Rosie asked him if he spoke Japanese? He said he only knew Aikido-related words such as ‘Duck!’, ‘Stop!’, ‘Enough!’ and ‘I’m sorry’. He’s a very witty man – I could have listened to him for another hour. He said he would have to start writing about places other than Malaysia but I wanted to tell him that even if his next ten novels were set in Malaysia I’d still read them (and I did tell him this later on when he signed my books).

I have to admit I’d never heard of the other two authors but was glad to have heard them speak. I definitely want to read Narcopolis. Jeet Thayil’s novel is about Bombay in the 1970s, and takes place in the lowest class of society: opium smokers, drug users, pimps, prostitutes, and so on. He said he was tired about all Indian novels being about mangoes and monsoons and saris, loving grandparents and loved grandchildren. He said you no longer see these things in everyday India, that it’s a country of horrors. You see one horror after another on a daily basis and he wanted to convey that. When asked how he researched his novel, he replied that he used to be a part of this ‘lowest of the low’ in society. He was very open and honest about his past. He was asked how the book was received in India? ‘Viciously,’ was the word he used. Indian reviewers tore him and his book to shreds. When he attended the Jaipur Literature Festival he needed security. He believed it was because modern India doesn’t want to be reminded that such things are still taking place in the country. Interestingly (or typically), he said it all changed until his book started receiving rave reviews from the UK and the US. He said the Indian press then changed its tune about his novel overnight. Jeet mentioned that 50 pages of his novel take place in China but he hasn’t been there either!

Sjon is an Icelandic poet, novelist and lyricist. His novel, The Blue Fox, won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2005 and has just been published in Arabic. It tells the tale of a priest, a naturalist and a young woman with Down’s syndrome. Did you know that even today fetuses with Down’s syndrome are routinely aborted in Iceland? Isn’t that terrible? The audience was shocked when they learned that.

After the discussion about their work, each author read aloud from their books. Tan went first with the following passage:

In the last four days the words have refused to come to me when I call for them and I can only stare at the paper. When they do leak from my pen, I am unable to make sense of them. Only when I work at night am I untroubled by spells of word-blindness. So I go on, writing as much as I can before I fall asleep.

Since midnight I have been sitting at the desk, working over the pages in which I had set down the events in the internment camp, making changes to my choice of words and the structure of my sentences. I am wearing my cardigan, but the study is cold, and my fingers hurt.

I get up from my chair and walk around the room, massaging my neck. My body is sore, but it is a wonderful kind of soreness, resulting from hard, physical work. I have started practising kyudo again. After a few sessions I can feel the old lessons I have learned returning to me.

Going back to my desk, I turn a few pages and read over what I have written. Even monkeys fall from trees. Yes, I am quite certain that was what Fumio said to me, before he cut my fingers off.

Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap, and the world is in shadows again.

There are moments when, remember what happened, I am unable to continue writing. What troubles me more than anything, however, are the instances when I cannot recall with certainty what has taken place. I have spent most of my life trying to forget, now all I want to is to remember. I cannot remember what my sister looked like; I do not even have a picture of her. And my conversation with Aritomo by Usugumo Pond, on that night of the meteor shower… did it take place on the day of Templer’s visit or did it occur on a different evening entirely? Time is eating away my memory. Time, and this illness, this trespasser in my brain.

There was pin-drop silence as he was reading and nobody spoke when he had finished. That’s when I realised that most of the audience, including me, and the moderator, and even Tan himself were in tears.

Jeet went next with the opening lines of his novel. He said the first six and a half pages consisted of one sentence, but I think he read just the first page and a half.

Sjon went last with a passage from his book.

After they had finished reading, Rosie asked them what they were working on. Jeet said he was writing a novel called Mangoes, Monsoons and Saris: An Indian Story. Of course, everyone laughed. Tan said he was working on a novel set in China, and it would be called Marcopolis. I’m pretty sure he was joking about his title too.

After the session the authors were signing copies of their books in the main foyer. I told Tan I loved his work as he was signing my books.

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He asked me whether I lived in Dubai and I told him I’d moved from London just over a year ago. He looked at me incredulously: Why?? ‘The weather,’ I said, although that’s not strictly true – it’s the short answer I give people.

My next session was at 11.30 and was called ‘Making it into Print’ with two authors, Kate Lord Brown and Kathy Shalhoub. It was interesting as Kathy’s book came about because she had been writing a blog about being an expat. I didn’t learn anything I didn’t know already though (keep practising, know your characters better than your friends, experiment and have fun, and so on).

I had some free time between 12.30pm and 3pm so I walked over to Festival City Centre and walked around for a while. I’d have stayed at the InterContinental but it was just so crowded I needed some space. I went back to the InterCon at 1.30pm and it had quietened down a bit as some of the afternoon sessions had already started. I wandered around the Dubai Doors exhibit for a few minutes.

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I bought a coffee, found a quiet spot at the end of a corridor, sat on the floor and read my book.

The 3pm session I attended was an hour with Tony Buzan called ‘Maps, Minds & Unlocking Creativity’. He talked about the use of colour when making notes and that the brain pays more attention when it looks at several colours rather than just one monotone colour. Colour is used to: discriminate, differentiate, categorise, reinvigorate the memory, focus the mind, improve the memory, highlight important things, stimulate the imagination. He told us that one brain cell is more powerful than a computer… Something Tony Buzan said really made me laugh. He said that when he was a boy growing up in Kent he was only allowed to write in one colour at school. Not blue ink, not black ink, but blue-black ink. And I remembered when I first went to boarding and we had to have a Parker pen and blue-black ink. Schools really do suck all the creativity out of you, don’t they?

Anyway, we were all given a piece of paper and a coloured pen. We had to write an introduction about ourselves and then introduce ourselves to the person sitting next to us. My introduction is pretty much what it says on my blog: Ex-Londoner now living in Dubai, and so on, except I added I’d been born to Indian parents and spent my childhood in Nigeria. The guy sitting next to me introduced himself first (Canadian-Lebanese), worked in finance, father of two, husband of one. I then read out what I’d written. ‘Nigeria?’ he asked. ‘I grew up in Lagos!’ What are the odds? He used to live in Apapa and went to the Lebanese School. What a small world. He introduced me to his wife who was sitting on his other side.

Our next exercise was to think of all the possible uses of a paper clip other than clipping paper together. I came up with toothpick (gross, I know), picking locks, resetting watches, hairclip. We then had to come up with the most creative things that we couldn’t use a toothpick for (e.g. breathing, food, making a spaceship, the list was endless). We then had to argue that we could in fact use a toothpick for breathing, food and making a spaceship. It was an entertaining session, and the way people’s minds work so differently is unbelievable.

I had an hour free after that session so I went outside and read my book – it wasn’t too hot and there was a nice breeze coming in from the creek.

At 5pm I went to the Ben Okri session called ‘Wild and A Time for New Dreams‘. Wild is his latest collection of poetry and A Time for New Dreams is his latest collection of essays. Rosie Goldsmith was interviewing him.

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I wish I could have memorised every word that he said during that hour. He talked about his family, growing up in Nigeria, his writing. He’s fascinating to listen to – and he has so much to say. The woman sitting in front of me recorded the whole thing and I’m hoping she puts it up on YouTube.

The last session I went to was ‘Stranger than Fiction: Jeffrey Archer In Conversation with Anthony Horowitz’. The queue to get into the room snaked all the way down the corridor and by the time I got to the front of the queue I was nowhere near the front. And then, one of the volunteers said there was a seat for one person in the sixth row. Amazing! I suppose that’s one of the perks of doing things on your own.

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It was a very entertaining hour. Jeffrey Archer talked about how he got started with his writing, the success of Kane & Abel, what he wants to do next (‘I’ve applied to be the next Pope’). He captivated the audience with one story after the other. I haven’t read anything by him in about 15 years but I’m now tempted to pick up the first of The Clifton Chronicles and see what it’s all about. He got a standing ovation at the end of the session.

It was a brilliant (but exhausting) day and I’m already looking forward to next year!

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Review: The Other Hand

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I’d never heard of this book or its author, Chris Cleave. I was in the bookshop at Dubai Airport in April, waiting for my mum and grandmother to come out of Customs, and I saw this. I read the blurb on the back. It told me nothing

We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it so we will just say this: This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice. Two years later, they meet again – the story starts there… 

Intriguing. 

I don’t think knowing a little about what the book was about would have ruined it for me. It wouldn’t have stopped me from buying it. Anyway, it’s about two women: one is a Nigerian refugee in the UK, the other is an editor for a popular magazine. It’s about the day they met, and how their meeting changed their lives. 

I was hooked from the beginning. I started reading it by the pool and before I knew it, I’d read one-third of it. I read the whole book in four sittings. I didn’t want to put it down because I had no idea what was going to happen next. It has so far been the best book I’ve read in 2012 and it will haunt me for some time to come.

And that’s seven of 20 books I intend to read in 2012. And because I bought it this year it doesn’t count towards my Mount TBR Reading Challenge.

 

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Review: The Marriage Plot

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I bought this book in late 2011 (so it counts towards my Mount TBR Reading Challenge!) and had been looking forward to reading it as I loved Middlesex when I read it in 2005. It was so… different.

I found The Marriage Plot to be a disappointing ‘modern romance’. Madeleine, a student at Brown University in the early 1980s, is writing her thesis on the way marriage plots are used in Victorian literature. She has two men in love with her. This love triangle continues after graduation – she ends up living with one while the other goes travelling around the world. The way I’ve described it sounds dull. Actually, it was dull. I felt nothing while I read it. It was like kissing my gay best friend.

There are some passages of beautiful writing, but it reminded me of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom – smug, dysfunctional, flawed characters. I know flawed characters make interesting reading, but this was not interesting. 

It took me ages to finish the book – partly because I just didn’t want to continue reading it, and partly because I travelled for a while and didn’t read it for a month. I didn’t even consider taking it on holiday with me because I knew I wouldn’t want to read it.

Read no further if you’re planning on reading the book!

In a nutshell:

From the books you read for your thesis, and for your article – the Austen and the James and everything – was there any novel where the heroine gets married to the wrong guy and then realizes it, and then the other suitor shows up, some guy who’s always been in love with her, and then they get together, but finally the second suitor realizes that the last thing the woman needs is to get married again, that she’s got more important things to do with her life? And so finally the guy doesn’t propose at all, even though he still loves her? Is there any book that ends like that?

That’s the story. In one paragraph. On the last page of the book. I could have saved myself a lot of time. 

I’m lagging this year – I’ve only read six of the 20 books I plan to read in 2012 and according to Goodreads, I’m three books behind schedule. I thought that when I moved to Dubai I’d have more time to read, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I have some catching up to do!

 

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Review: The Sandglass

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I’d mentioned in an earlier post that I went to a session at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and Romesh Gunesekera was on the panel of writers. I’d read Monkfish Moon back in 2004 and had thoroughly enjoyed it. The Sandglass sat on my bookshelf for 7 years, and seeing Gunesekera at the festival reminded me that I needed to read it. And it would count towards the 12 books in my Mount TBR Reading Challenge.

I have to say I was disappointed with the book. It tells the tale of two feuding (but yet intertwined) families in Sri Lanka from the 1930s to the 1950s, through the eyes of Chip, the narrator, when he visits Sri Lanka in the late 1990s. He reminisces about the year before, when he discussed past events with Prins, who had arrived in London for his mother’s funeral. Their conversations take place over 1 day.

The story moves between contemporary London and Sri Lanka of the past, reminding me of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos, where Cesar Castillo spends his last hours thinking about his life. 

Even though I found the constant jumping between periods of time confusing, the author uses words beautifully:

Outside, the silence of freshly fallen snow pressed against the window panes; there was no traffic to be heard on the roads. This was silence like the dream of heaven. I began to realise how wrong all those composers were who heaped scales upon scales in their vain attempts to capture the grandeur of heaven: what they really needed to do was to stop. To hold their breath and try to imagine a stilled heart and the peace that can only come from the absence of conflict, of abrasion, of friction, of sound itself. No wonder we never hear the angels on our shoulders: they do not speak. They melt at the prospect of sound, perhaps even prayer. Heaven is not music: heaven, if anything, must be silence. The stillness of the centre, the eye of a storm whirling across the universe. An unveiling mind.  

I could hear the author’s voice in my head when I read that paragraph.

Was I expecting too much from the book? Have my reading tastes changed over the last 7 years? I don’t know, but I’m thinking of re-reading Monkfish Moon and trying to figure it out.

And that’s number five in my 20 books in 2012 challenge!

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Review: The Hunger Games

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I downloaded this to my Kindle late last year (so it counts towards the Mount TBR Reading Challenge). I met someone at a wedding in December and we started talking about books – she said she couldn’t put this one down. I was in the middle of a couple of other books, and it took me about two months to get through the first book in the Game of Thrones series, so I didn’t pick this up until mid-March.

I started it on a Friday and finished it on Saturday. I couldn’t put it down. I took it down to the pool on the Saturday and read in peace. I came back upstairs, got into bed (at 5pm) and continued reading until I’d finished it. 

The book is set in a future where the United States no longer exists. Instead it is the nation of Panem, consisting of 12 districts, all governed by the Capitol (somewhere in the Rockies). Each year, one boy and one girl are chosen from each district and taken to the Capitol, where they have to participate in the Hunger Games. The Hunger Games is a live TV show where the contestants fight to the death. There can only be one winner. 

The story is told from the perspective of the main character, Katniss Everdeen, who is from poverty-stricken District 12. She volunteers for the Hunger Games when her 12-year-old sister’s name is called out during the Reaping (the process of selecting the boy and girl). She and Peeta (the male contestant from District 12) are taken to the Capitol and given make-overs and advice on how to survive this game (‘Don’t get killed’). And then they’re let loose in the arena. Carnage ensues, and it is a little predictable, but it’s a gripping, easy read. 

I usually never watch a movie if I’ve read the book. Film adaptations never live up to the book and I end up disappointed and irritated. But I had a feeling this would be a fantastic movie so I went to see it. Did it live up to the hype? And was it as good as the book? Well, the simple answers are ‘No’ and ‘No’. While the book is fast-paced, I thought the movie dragged in places. So much of the history and detail in the book is lost when transferred to film. I came out of that movie 2.5 hours later wishing I hadn’t bothered to see it.

 

So do yourself a favour: read the book, don’t see the movie!

 

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Review: Starter for Ten

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I read One Day by David Nicholls in the first half of 2011 and thoroughly enjoyed it (apart from the end). Before I left for Dubai a friend told me she was reading Starter for Ten by the same author and that it was hilarious. I’d already started reading Game of Thrones but needed to swap it for something light and easy so I could hit my 20 books in 2011 (which I missed by one book). I didn’t know it was published in 2003 and I didn’t know it was already a movie.

I was laughing from the very beginning of the book. It’s 1985 and Brian is a working-class Essex boy who starts his first term at university. He’s obsessed with Kate Bush, a student called Alice, and getting on University Challenge (which is where the title of the novel comes from). Brian is such a nerd and so socially awkward that he finds himself in the most ridiculous situations, saying the most cringe-worthy things. For example:

“‘Well…’ says Alice ‘…we had some friends round, like we always do on Boxing Day, and we were playing charades, and it was my turn, and I was trying to do ‘Last Year At Marienbad’ for Mummy, and she was getting so frantic and over-excited, and shouting so hard, that her cap popped out and landed right in our next-door neighbour’s glass of wine!’ 
And everyone’s laughing, even Mr Harbinson, and the atmosphere is so funny and adult and amusing and irreverent that I say, ‘You mean you weren’t wearing any underwear?!?’ 
Everyone is silent. 
‘I’m sorry?’ asks Rose. 
‘Your cap. When it popped out. How did it get past your… underpants?’ 
Mr Harbinson puts down his knife and fork, swallows his mouthful, turns to me and says, very slowly, ‘Actually, Brian, I think Alice was referring to her mother’s dental cap.'”

Mortifying, isn’t it? It’s one situation after the other and I laughed all the way through. Yes, Brian is annoying at times – but nobody’s perfect. Are they? 

I thought One Day was better written, more refined, but this was much funnier. The Understudy is definitely going to be on my list for 2012. And… I’ve just bought a ticket to see David Nicholls at the Emirates Festival of Literature in March, here in Dubai!

Anyway, that’s the first of my 20 books in 2012! I think my next review might be a few weeks away. I need to start reading more! At this rate I won’t even get to 10 books in 2012. I’ve gone back to reading Game of Thrones which is taking me forever (but then I do only read one chapter each night).  

 

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Review: Life and Laughing

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At the beginning of 2011, a friend introduced me to Michael McIntyre. Not to him personally, but to his comedy. Of course I’d heard of him but I’d never sat down and watched his shows. She lent me two DVDs which I’m ashamed to say I kept for ages. Not because I was watching them over and over again, but because I hadn’t got round to watching them at all!

Towards the end of my week off in February, I decided I was going to watch them. I was laughing out loud. At home. Alone. 

A few months later the same friend recommended his autobiography. I’m not a huge fan of autobiographies and usually give up one-third of the way through when reading them, if I get that far at all. I also had a long list of other books I wanted to get through first!

Later in the year, another friend said he had read Life and Laughing and said it was hilarious. This is someone who had never heard of Michael McIntyre until I‘d told him about him – on the same day I watched the DVD, in fact! Yes, I’ll get to it eventually, I thought.

I was at Heathrow on Christmas Eve, waiting for my flight to Dubai. My Kindle on my iPad was fully stocked, but I didn’t feel like reading anything on it. I went to WHSmith, found Michael McIntyre’s book, and started reading it on the plane.

I was laughing from page 1, when he describes choosing his writing space and whether he should get a swivel chair or not. I think all writers put off writing for as long as possible, waiting for those perfect conditions that never exist. I could relate. I kept reading. I read almost half the book on the plane (I stopped at the sad part when I could feel my eyes tearing up) and finished it in a couple of days after landing in Dubai.

If you like Michael McIntyre, and even if you don’t, this is a must-read. Apparently it’s suitable for all ages:

2012
2012

It was my 19th book in 2011, and the last. I didn’t make it to 20, but I hope to in 2012!

 

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Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid had been sitting on my bookshelf for almost two years. I’d been meaning to read it but hadn’t got round to it yet. When I was sorting out my books for Dubai – what would be shipped or given away – I found this behind some other books and thought it might be better not to send it in the container with all the other stuff. I’d been told that any ‘inappropriate’ books would be confiscated by customs and I didn’t want to take a chance…

This Sunday was the first Sunday in about six months where I had nothing planned. No yoga, no parents in town to have lunch with, and I wasn’t sure what to do. Being one of three books in my bookcase (I’d read the other two), I picked it up and headed to Raoul’s. I ordered my eggs and coffee and started reading.

The main character Changez is telling his story to an American stranger in Lahore. The entire story is told from Changez’s point of view – a monologue. He tells the American how he gets to America, goes to Princeton, falls in love with an American woman, gets a competitive job as an analyst, and then 9/11 happens. His relationship falls apart, he’s disillusioned with the way he’s being treated in the US, his work suffers and he decides to quit, knowing that his work visa will expire and he’ll have to return to Pakistan.

The book was so good I was almost halfway through it by the time I was done at Raoul’s – it’s not a very long book and it’s easy to read. I found the second half disappointing, though, and I hated the end. It ends abruptly and ambiguously, leaving the reader to decide for him/herself what happens. Perhaps I’m a lazy reader who likes/needs to be told the whole story, rather than having to use my brain to imagine what happens next. But isn’t that the writer’s responsibility to his or her reader?

I’m glad I read the book. I’m glad it only took me one day to read. But I wish the end had been different.

And that’s 18 of my 20 books in 2011! There’s just over six weeks left of 2011 and I’m not sure I’m going to achieve my goal… 

 

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